The Martial Arts of Colonial America – Armed and Unarmed

During the period between 1620 and 1776, virtually every male generation in the American thirteen colonies took part in a major war. Upon this near-perpetual anvil of conflict was forged a people inured to hardship, violence, who were keenly aware of the need to train in self-defense methods, and who would eventually be able to successfully take on one of the greatest empires in the world, despite their own technological and material inferiority. Indeed, period accounts written by British officers and Hessian mercenaries evince a grudging respect and even awe for Americans’ prowess and dedication to studying the art of combat.

In this lecture, we look at the most dominant styles of armed and unarmed combat that were practiced and taught in the American colonies.

The first portion of this lecture will discuss the various fencing methods used during the period, as evinced by surviving treatises and firsthand accounts. We will look at the masters who taught these arts, who mainly hailed from France, England, and Scotland—but who also included members of American-born fencing dynasties—and taught weapons as diverse as the small-sword, backsword, broadsword, spadroon, dagger and cudgel. We will discuss the use of these methods in both the context of civilian self-defense, dueling, and local stage-gladiator contests. We will also discuss such methods in the context of war, and the fencing techniques imparted to both American military officers and early Special Operations units (in which American-based fencing masters served). The use of the bayonet and pike during the Revolution by George Washington’s forces and by opposing British special forces will also be covered.

The second portion of the lecture will discuss unarmed American colonial combat, with particular reference to Rough and Tumble fighting, one of the most devastating unarmed martial arts ever devised. The origins of rough and tumble fighting hearken back to what was then one of the most dangerous and anarchic outposts of Western civilization—the eighteenth century backwoods of Virginia and the Carolinas. In this crucible was born one of the most brutal unarmed fighting styles ever known—if indeed, “unarmed” it could be called. Its adepts often sharpened their teeth with iron files, and fire-hardened their fingernails to inflict extra damage on their antagonists. Drawing upon elements of pugilism, wrestling, head-butting, and other techniques from both Britain and Ireland, these early practitioners developed and integrated techniques of kicking, throwing, submission-style grappling, biting, eye-gouging, and, as one witness put it, “every diabolical Strategem for Mastery…which a savage would blush at being accused of.” Notably, rough and tumble contests were influenced by a deeply embedded, cultural disdain for rules and regulations, under the guise of freedom-loving American republicanism. As one practitioner explained to his defeated opponent, “everything was fair in a rough-and-tumble fight.” Reports of such combats were so vivid and horrific that some European authors dismissed them as exaggeration or sheer fantasy. Yet the existence of this distinctly American fighting style can be verified by a wealth of firsthand accounts from period diaries, journals, and letters never intended for publication. Nor were such techniques simply for use in one-to-one contests; the record shows that American colonists used them with success in frontier warfare against various adversaries. As one American writer fondly reminisced, rough and tumble was:

“the fight of our own country, and peculiar to it, like the buffalo, the alligator and the rattlesnake, while [British pugilism] is foreign and unrepublican; the degraded sport of the minions of effete depsotisms; patronized by marquises like him of Queensbury…To those who loved fighting for its own sake, who rejoiced in the sight of struggle and blood, the ‘rough and tumble’ afforded all the joys, and more, of a modern prize fight.”

There will be visual accompaniment with period images. Following the lecture, and time permitting, we will open the floor to questions.

18th/19th Century 2019 Fighting Arts of the Americas Panels and Presentations
Location: Laughlin I Date: August 2, 2019 Time: 2:30 pm - 3:30 pm Ben Miller